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  • Writer's pictureAllen Crater

You Get What You Need.

Updated: Jul 1

The tent fly, sleeping bags, and assorted soggy fishing-wear flap restlessly on our makeshift clothesline. Thick-cut bacon sizzles in cast iron and coffee perks on the faded-green Coleman – its steady chug, chug, chug like a locomotive getting up to speed on worn country tracks.

Our campsite is, in a word, bedraggled.

Last night’s storm gave us more than we bargained for. In the bargaining category, I played the odds and took the "under" on if we were going to get any rain at all – despite the ominous-looking skies.

We did. Get rain that is. A full night of it, in fact.

Along with a thunder-and-lightning show that would have given the pyrotechnic team from any '80s hair-band a serious run for their beer money, and a howling wind that cast visions of Aunty Em, Toto, and winged monkeys.

But the storm has passed and left a beautiful morning in its tumultuous wake. A warming sun is just beginning to peek over the tree line, drying our weathered gear. And we have bacon, coffee, and lakeside seating, all to ourselves.

The tent may have given up the proverbial ghost, but the inhabitants are none the worse for wear. Damp, maybe. A little tired, sure. But we're on an island campsite tucked way up in the Canadian backcountry and our agenda for this Tuesday simply reads "fishing" – for the fourth day in a row.

This little island is a special place to me, bordering on sacred. It's a refuge discovered a number of years back through an acquaintance. A retreat that for several seasons I've journeyed to with my dad and sons. To camp, to laugh at the day's fiascos around a fire, to eat food my wife wouldn't approve of, and to chase the massively oversized northern pike that patrol these waters.

And that's exactly what my buddy Ozzy and I came for: the massively oversized pike. Well, for all of it, really.

Life had been handing out a healthy dose of ailments to us both as of late. Not the physical kind, per se, but the let's-see-how much-you-can-handle variety that tend to weigh heavy. Different afflictions, same prescription: time away from the stresses and worries of the daily grind, fresh air, good company, and as much adventure as we are willing to seek out. A remedy that has served me well throughout my five decades.

I flip the bacon, cooked extra crispy per the request of my camp compatriot, but there's still a twinge of anxiety buzzing around me, like a pesky mosquito on a muggy June evening.

For the past three days we have been working over every section of this water as thoroughly as crime-scene investigators. The go-to's, the plan B's, and the never-fished; the inlets and outlets. Testing shorelines, drop offs, and weed edges with Ozzy's hand-tied, white Double Deceiver pattern. And while we've found the numbers – probably close to a hundred at this point – we haven't located any of the big fellas that have hung heavy in the net on past outings. And that is giving me heartburn.

It's causing an undefined uneasiness that comes with taking a pal to water you've bragged up, and hoping it doesn't make a fool of you. Like inviting said pal on a blind date with a recently available cousin and praying to God it isn't Crazy Carole that decides to show.

Ozzy loads his pipe, leans back letting the sun hit his face, then takes a long, deep breath of pine, and smiles. He reminds me that the fishing is just a bonus in this whole adventure. Besides, he says, we've caught plenty and we still have today.

I sip my coffee, soak in the moment, and smile too – I know he's right, and it's a timely reminder that, like many cures in life, fishing is merely the excuse. It's about the journey, after all, not the destination, as Emerson was quick to remind.

This particular journey began a several days ago when I left the Grand Rapids city limits in the before-dawn hours to meet up with Oz in Grayling where he had been camping and tricking trout with hackle and thread. His ailments requiring a slightly more extended dose of life-in-the-great-outdoors than mine.

From Grayling we moseyed up I-75, stopping for breakfast at my usual spot, before traversing the Mackinaw Bridge, cutting the corner on a small chunk of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and crossing the St. Mary's River into Canada.

Once into the land of hockey and maple syrup we followed along the Lake Superior shoreline with plans to stop at a couple rivers I knew held smallmouth and coaster brook trout, while leaving enough time to explore a few others not yet tested.

It was sunny when we finally rolled up to the first spot on my list, tugged the waders on, and, after applying liberal layers of "Canadian cologne" for the black flies, made our way down to the water. Not ideal conditions, but we slipped and slid our way over slick rocks in the lively, tannic current anyway; wading with optimism out to a sandbar that offered access to a long outside riffle and bubbly tail-out.

Finally settled and in position, Ozzy's first cast rewarded his optimism with a nice rainbow, and a few casts later I connected with my first fish of the trip, a mid-sized smallmouth. I shuffled further down, and mid strip on my retrieve, felt a solid tug in the heart of the riffle. After an extended dance number, a bright coaster brook trout came to hand. Its spots faded, but beautiful in the way only brook trout can be, none-the-less. Three species pulled from the first run; a good start. 

Satisfied we had shaken hands with all the willing players in this stretch, we worked upriver, above the raucous waterfall, to explore further.

As beautiful as this upper section was, it only produced one more small rainbow and, away from the lake-blown breeze, the black flies had become less and less impressed with our Essence of DEET. So we loaded up and moved on – there was plenty of new water ahead, and it was calling like a siren song.

We motored along, each keenly watching out the windows. Crossing a rusted metal truss bridge, a beautiful, braided section of angler-less river caught our attention simultaneously, and we exchanged knowing glances. Ozzy, fishing boat in tow, flipped a quick u-turn and parked along the crunchy gravel shoulder.

An official-looking sign that warned we were only allowed to keep one brook trout over 22 inches added more butterflies to the growing collection already fluttering around in my stomach. We eased down to the water, and Ozzy's streamer immediately got smacked by something big and angry while swaying lazily on the dangle just a few yards from his legs. Images of 22-inch brook trout flooded my mind and the butterflies careened into overdrive.

Deciding this water was better worked from the other side of the river, Ozzy made his way across the bridge and slithered down the opposite bank. I pushed up farther to a shallow gravel stretch where two braids ran together creating a long, riffled crease that looked exactly like the place I'd choose to hang my hat if I was a giant brook trout that fancied hats.

There's a certain and indescribable level of amped-up-ness that overtakes me when fishing new spots, and this one was no exception. Especially after witnessing the results of the dangling fly episode. Consequently my first few casts at the top of the run were dripping with adrenaline and severely sloppy.

I lit a cigarette, took a moment, and attempted to collect myself. The overwhelming intensity now at least slightly satiated, I began to pick the run apart.

Cast across. Strip, strip, strip back. Slide down a couple steps.

Cast across. Strip, strip, strip back. A couple more steps.

Cast across. Strip, strip, STOP!

My rod suddenly began bucking from something wild and heavy, deep in that dark water – peeling off line at breakneck speed – intent on heading in the opposite direction of my precarious perch. I cupped the reel and hung on. 

Finally able to slow the fish, I shouted downriver to Ozzy who, it seemed, was out of shouting range. Eventually my animated flailing on the slippery rocks (or possibly my volume-ten cursing) caught his attention and he started scampering up along the opposite bank as quickly as possible. Newspaper headlines flashed through my mind: Bumbling Michigan angler botches world-record brook trout before bewildered buddy comes to aid.

On the reel I began to work the fish out of heavy current, before he'd pull me right back to where we started. Back and forth we went, me trying not to lose my footing on the greasy gravel, he doing his damnedest to get back to Lake Superior. Ozzy tripped and trotted his way up the opposing bank in suspender-clad Gore-Tex and heavy wading boots, as I, not so slowly, lost my cool and invented a wide range of creative, but not-safe-for-print, phrases about the situation.

I finally managed to muscle the fish into skinnier water and nearly collapsed when I realized my world-record brook trout was actually a big, colored-up Great Lakes steelhead. I reached back for my landing net but, sensing something was up and wanting no part of it, he zipped off into the dark again.

Ozzy was closer now and laughing at the commotion as he searched for a safe spot to cross. Laugh it up, amigo, I thought out loud, while plotting my retribution. I backed into the gravel, eased the fish in close, tried to reach with my trout net, and sent him scurrying off into the depths again.

Damn it!

Now safely on the proper side of the river Ozzy was nearly doubled over in laughter at the spectacle unfolding in front of him. I cast him an angry glance hidden behind polarized lenses, managed to slip my way back into the gravel, attempted to scoop the pinstriped torpedo with my knife-to-a-gun-fight landing net, realized he'd never fit, and sent him pulsing away through the shallows.

Luckily Oz was able to tail him, then, between guffaws, snap a few pictures for me before the shakes set in.

I saw a shirt advertised on the internet one time that read "I'm sorry for what I said when I was hungry." My version is similar though slightly modified, but I really am sorry for what I said when I was trying to land that fish. I promise.

Steelhead safely released and second cigarette now extinguished, all was forgiven. Gracias, amigo. Muchas gracias.

Deciding we'd had our fill of excitement for day one and not wanting to burn all the fishing mojo right out of the gate, we loaded up and pointed the Tacoma north toward WaWa.

It was nearing 7 PM and our stomachs had begun to remind us that, in the excitement of fishing, we hadn't eaten a scrap of food in nearly 12 hours.

A mile or so off Highway 17 we found ourselves seated at the Viking Inn, which promised the "best pizza in town." I'll admit It lived up to the hype for two famished anglers but, to be fair, not only was it the best pizza in town, it was the only pizza in town. As a marketing guy, such nuances are not lost on me.

Bellies full and thirsts quenched we left the one-pizza-joint town in the rearview and pressed on through the Canadian dark. Headlights illuminated moose crossing signs that dotted the roadside and kept us on high alert. A couple years back I saw firsthand how a moose-and-tour-bus meet-up ends – it wasn't pretty for either party.

Finally arriving at our rustic cabin for the night, we unpacked, showered off, and took pipes on the deck – pensively watching the bright moon rise over the lake until our eyes finally succumbed to the sleep we both desperately needed. The weight already feeling lighter than before.

Now it's a well-established fact among friends and family that when it's time to head out hunting or fishing I can become a pretty wound-up fellow. No time to dilly dally, eat, relieve yourself, or make conversation – there's fish to be caught and game to be taken, and not a minute to waste. We all know who gets the worm, and it ain't the bird that slept in because his sleeping bag felt cozy.

But for this trip I had promised myself I'd embrace a more "laid back" approach – if not for my benefit at least for that of my partner. Namaste, my friends. Namaste.

The island campsite we were aiming for is difficult to get to, which is both the blessing and the curse, and I knew we had some work in front of us. In no rush to arrive mid-day when the fishing slows to a near stop, my heart rate remained below 100 BPMs as we took our time the next morning – sleeping in, sipping coffee, and carefully repacking before the hour-long drive along the dusty, winding backroads to the put in.

After transferring the camp contents from the back of the pickup into the well-used, 14-foot Starcraft on loan from Oz's dad, he gave the two-stroke a snappy pull and we were on our way. The scent of lake water mixed with boat exhaust immediately drew me back to every fishing trip with my grandpa, dad, and boys - just like it does every time.

But I was still tense despite the Zen exterior I attempted to display. I knew we had at least one tricky spot yet to come as we made our way up through this lake, into the river system, and across the lake above that held our island. A rogue series of tight, boulder-laden rapids that, in low-water years, can wreck a prop or require an unload-the-entire-boat portage. Which, it turned out, it did.

We pulled up to a skinny spit of rock that bypassed the rapids, unloaded the boat and repurposed an abandoned beaver lodge into a ramp of sorts – pushing, pulling, swearing, and shimmying our aluminum water taxi up and over to the safety of the other side before carefully reloading and getting back on our way. It's the journey, I muttered under my breath, not the destination.

Back to our morning after the rain, we finish our bacon, egg, and coffee breakfast and load up the Starcraft. Our gas situation dictates that today is our last on this water and, given the setbacks in finding big fish, we've decided to go all-in and undertake a full-blown reconnaissance mission.

On the northwest corner of the quiet cove in which our island resides, another river system feeds in, leading upstream to a smaller lake and another river that, according to maps I've pored over, leads upstream to yet another lake - this one much larger and far more inaccessible. I've spent many nights dreaming about what it might hold.

In years past dad, Blake, and I have motored up into the river a short ways, but it moves through the valley with pace over an abundance of rocks, always turning us back. Beyond my imagination I've never gone further.

Today that is going to change. Ozzy and I have promised ourselves we're going to go up, even if it means busting through the thick tangles along the banks on foot.

We shove off and begin the journey, across our lake, up the channel, into the smaller lake and then to the mouth of the inlet. It's quite shallow at the confluence, so Ozzy elects to row us in while I navigate from the bow. We finally find deeper water, but the current is heavy, too much for the 15-horse, and the passage is loaded with rocks. By foot it will be.

We pull the boat into a slower side channel and tie off to a tree before donning bug nets, grabbing rods, and beginning the bushwhacking session.

Through dense tangles we follow moose tracks along the river, crossing fish skeletons, wolf scat, and the drum of a nearby grouse. Up and down, over roots and rocks we push. Testing the river in various clearings but finding no fish. We drive ourselves farther, within view of the lake now, pumping the watery lifeblood from the heart of this rugged landscape: the source. We stop and stare longingly. There's no way to fish it from shore. But now we know. Now we've seen it. Next time, we promise, we'll bring a canoe and explore its mysteries. But for now, daylight is fast fading and we need to get back to the island.

At camp that evening we lounge around a crackling campfire savoring New York strips flavored with sautéed onions and a handful of morels we gathered, then pour ourselves a few fingers of Tequila, and then a few more – a special treat we've saved for the end.

As we light our pipes, the tremolo trill of a screech owl echoes in the distance, and two loons call to each other through the blackness. Staring up into the great dome of stars that seem to blanket the sky in every direction, the contents of the cup loosens deeper conversations. About relationships, about life, about God. Though we disagree slightly on the specifics, it's times like this in nature that bring absolute clarity to the complexity of the universe and our natural world. That give us perspective on our lives and our purpose, and offer a more accurate scale for evaluating difficulties. We extinguish the last of the bottle and the fire before heading off to contented sleep that, until this trip, had been challenging for either of us to come by.

The next morning we are up early, wolfing down a quick breakfast before packing up camp and making our way out. There's an overwhelming sense of loss as the island campsite – our refuge for the last four days – grows smaller and smaller on the horizon, but we plan to get on the road early enough to revisit the rivers on our way home, and that has us excited.

We pull off on the familiar gravel shoulder, rummage our fly gear from the disheveled contents of the truck bed, grab the big net (lesson learned), and give a nod to the brook trout sign along the fisherman's trail as we make our way to the river. We wade in slowly, the quick, clear water parting around our boots like two paths diverging in the woods, and begin fishing at the top of the run that produced for me less than a week ago. Ozzy peels out line, makes a long cast across the deep, stained cut, and strips back.


I follow a short distance behind and together we work the entire run from stem to stern, then switch flies, move back to the top and fish all the way through again. We never even summon a bump, follow, or take. It seems an anticlimactic ending to our outing. Like fate has somehow robbed us of the conclusion we had written. That now, away from the island, we are back to a reality less promising.

Unwilling to accept the destiny we've been dealt, we stop and regroup. It's possible to push farther upstream and explore parts yet unknown, but it will require serious hacking through thick cover – the river itself too fast and slippery to wade. It's an easy decision, and with a childlike eagerness that comes from constantly wondering what's around the next bend, we fight through the underbrush finally emerging, scratched up, bug bitten, and sweaty, on a wide gravel bar overlooking what might the most beautiful stretch of water I've ever laid eyes on. A long, deep run follows a tall undercut bank into a picture-perfect gravel tail-out. Rugged, pewter-colored cliffs rise aggressively in the background. The sky, once sunny, now carries solemn slate clouds in the west, moving in our direction. There's no sign that another angler has been along this way in a good while - tracks of deer, moose, and coyote the only disturbances on the sandy bank.

I slump on a log, wipe the sweat from my face, and light a cigarette. Ozzy's first up and wastes no time hustling his streamer into the juicy-looking run. Before I can even draw my first drag, he's yelling and his rod is folding and pulsing like he's hooked a rodeo bull. I stomp out the smoke, grab the net, and hurry down to the water hoping he can last longer than eight seconds.

While we still haven't seen the fish, we know for certain it's another steelhead, and this one appears no less feisty than his brethren who bullied me. Oz works him close, before the angry long-horn goes on a line-peeling run, dragging the angler attached to the other end along the slippery gravel. Now it's my turn to laugh. Hang on, amigo, you're in for a ride.

After four more blazing charges, the fish begins to tire and Ozzy manages to corral him into net range. I reach down, make the scoop, and heft up a massive, kype-jawed buck. We both stand momentarily speechless before exploding into high fives and war whoops. The steelhead's dark green body is covered in hundreds of tiny black spots, his cheeks are deeply blushed, and he sports a bright pink racing stripe down the length of his body. I snap a few shaky pictures for Ozzy before he releases the overgrown rainbow back to the depths, then light a cigarette. The dark clouds are now moving quickly in our direction. We gather our gear and push back to the truck. Just as we peel off the waders, stow the gear in the back, and get in, pregnant raindrops begin to ping off the hood in a frenetic fury.

While we never found the massive pike we were after, this trip was always about the journey – as much about what we left behind as what we took home. It was about sunrises after a storm, chasing the unknown promises of new water; about campfires with Tequila and the companionship of a trusted friend, and luring something wild and mysterious from the dark and then giving it back.

The musical philosopher Mick Jagger once told us we can't always get what we want, but if we try sometimes, we might just find we get what we need. He was right.

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